Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
A kaleidoscope of glittery color in costumes, wigs and make-up flash before us as gloriously decorated, leather-covered legs march, kick, and often fly skyward, making it quite clear why Kinky Boots received thirteen Tony nominations and won six (including Best Musical, Best Choreography, and Best Score). The team of Cyndi Lauper (music and lyrics) and Harvey Fierstein (book) took New York and the country by storm in 2013, and now in 2023 are lucky to have their Kinky Boots open on the intimate stage of City Lights Theater Company in a production bursting at the seams with as much–or maybe even more–joy, heart and ecstasy as the original, big-stage version.
Based on true events, Kinky Boots recounts how in Northampton, England, Charlie Price avoids closing an inherited shoe factory whose business is failing, preventing the laying off of all its longtime workers whom he has known since birth. He saves the plant and the jobs by turning the production line from one making men's very traditional dress shoes to one making gaudy but gorgeous drag queen boots.
The journey to the musical's triumphant, "Raise You Up/Just Be" finale begins with a chance meeting between twenty-something Charlie and a London drag performer named Lola–"chance" meaning Lola knocks Charlie out with her boot as she defends herself against taunting hooligans while he is trying to help save what he thought was a six-foot-tall, helpless damsel. Lola's heel is busted in the process (as is Charlie's head and pride), leading eventually to a partnership between the two when Charlie realizes there is a niche market no one else is satisfying: feminine boots strong enough and elegantly wild enough for the world of cross-dressing men. As Lola tells him, "I'd give my tit for a shoe that could stand up to me."
The road toward the story's emotion-high ending is one full of potholes–obstacles like workers who want nothing to do with "poofs" and sidetracks like Charlie's London-bound fiancée Nicola (played defiantly by Amber Smith), who wants nothing to do with Northampton and certainly not with a dying shoe factory. And then there is Charlie himself, who is carrying unresolved, inner pressures to live up to his now-deceased father's expectations and who has jumped in over his head to get a never-produced product ready in three weeks for the premiere European shoe show in Milan, Italy.
Charlie rides a big, emotional rollercoaster as he faces doubts about his competencies to lead and to love. When Matt Locke dynamically intones, "I may be facing the impossible/ I may be chasing after miracles ... But this is step one," Charlie's decision to transform his conservative family business into a drag queen's dream is given genuine, emotional anchoring as he beautifully sings, "It's not just a factory. This is my family." Locke's Charlie sheepishly looks and awkwardly acts like the guy next door in his rather baggy pants and striped shirt, making his transformation to a guy who eventually prances proudly more than a half-foot off the ground to show off his red leather creations even more fun.
But that shift comes through some hard knocks and deep soul-searching, with Charlie expressing a host of personal regrets and disappointments in Cyndi Lauper's hard-beat music ("Soul of a Man") as Matt Locke's voice rises in heartrending, sustained notes full of emotional authenticity while Charlie compares himself unfavorably to the father that he holds on such a high pedestal. Whether embodying depths of self-doubt or the heights of an unlikely, glittery triumph in heels, Matt Locke knocks it out of the park in the role of Charlie.
Equally stupendous in every respect is Barton "Bart" Perry, who steps into the six-inch heels of Lola (aka Simon when not in drag) that won Billy Porter wide acclaim and a Best Actor in a Musical Tony. Perry's Lola fully commands the stage every time she steps onto a nightclub (or even nursing home) stage or sashays with style and strut across the factory floor. In her short dresses that show off her long, muscular legs, this Lola can give it as much as she has had to take it all her life, telling her audience, "No need to be embarrassed. I like being looked at. And you like to look" With a voice that broadcasts "diva" with every reverberating, rafter-shaking note rendered, Lola sends muscled arms flying in every direction as she dances and sings fast and furious in full drag queen fashion. Barton Perry's Lola is brassy, bold, bombastic, and BIG in every respect: presence, steps, kicks, smile, heart, and especially spoken and sung vocals.
But Barton Perry brings much more than just explosive song and dance to his Lola. Dressed in a man's suit and wearing two-toned wingtips, he sings in a quiet, beautifully intonated manner, "Not My Father's Son," telling in song a heartfelt story of how he did not size up to what his father expected of a boy. Building ever-increasing volume and intensity, he climatically declares, "I found a way to turn it around, to see that I could just be me." Later, in full white gown draping to the floor, Lola sings to a father now in a nursing home who will still not recognize the son he has, "Hold Me in Your Heart," punching notes that are jaw-dropping and wowing, and singing from the depths of her being a message so many other parents and politicians today also need to hear: "Hold me in your heart just the way I am."
Decked out in flowing gowns, revealing slips, or oh-so-short shorts–and always in heels full of glitz and glamour–Lola's four Angels (Anthony Castillon, Ricardo Cortes, David Kautz, and Andrew Mo) often join her in song and strut for numbers that send the audience reeling in delight. Together with Lola, they snap and sizzle in step and style in "Land of Lola." They later ignite the stage with the humor and naughtiness of "Sex Is in the Heel," singing to heart-pounding, toe-tapping music, "Jack it up 'cause I'm no flat tire/ Mack it up six inches higher/ The sex is in the heel."
A number of more minor roles make their marks of distinction, both in humorous and heartwarming ways, as this inspiring story unfolds. As Charlie's boyhood friend Harry, AJ Jaffari brings solid vocals that shine with an edge of excitement in his duet with his pal, "Take What You Got." Factory manager George (Dane Lentz) patiently bridges the gaps between the young owner Charlie and his skeptical employees, while in the background he allows us to watch his own subtle smiles of coming out. The burly, brooding, and often bullying Don (Quinn Dembecki) spits and snarls at Lola and the Angels before slowly transforming before our eyes into a supportive friend who proudly sings in "Just Be," "Change the world when you change your mind." Karen DeHart is the perky and delightfully hip-swishy factory worker Pat; and Molly Thornton is a skeptical, smart-assed Trish who has her own ah-ha transformation for the better.
The entire ensemble, as so imaginatively and astutely co-directed by Lisa Mallette and Mark Anderson Phillips, knows how to individualize facial reactions and personality-defining gestures and nuances while also blending appropriately into a chorus of big-voiced, well-choreographed excellence.
One more standout must be acknowledged among this cast. As Charlie-pursuing, love-deprived Lauren (promoted from the factory floor to be Charlie's assistant), Lauren Berling never misses filling each minute she is on stage with a spontaneous something. Spastic gestures of her head, hair and hands; hilarious antics like blow-drying her sweaty armpits after Charlie happens to look at her (and then sending her long locks of hair flying in the wind as she sings away); or one more sideline look of wide-eyed adoration to Charlie (which he does not notice but we do) are her constant fare. Better yet is Lauren Berling's ability to vocalize a wide range of reactions and emotions with a voice that sells, sells, sells her character as a crowd favorite (as in "The History of Wrong Guys").
While the actors named and unnamed deserve so much credit for this evening of a rejoicing good time, equal credit must go to a design team that brings Broadway, big-stage quality to a floor's flat arena where actors are often only a couple feet away from audience members. Ron Gasparinetti's scenic design is extremely realistic in its factory's brick-and-mortar outside walls that seamlessly open to reveal working production tables, equipment, and assembly line. Whether lighting factory work, a boxing ring, or a nightclub stage, Spenser Matubang highlights the set changes with pizzazz and precision. Kailyn Erb's eye-popping costumes are a show unto themselves, an array of the everyday for factory workers and of sexy sparkle and spangle for the high-heeled drag queens. Special kudos to George Psarras whose sound design ensures the recorded score and the individually miked actors mix and blend superbly, with every one of Harvey Fierstein's and Cyndi Lauper's clever, often bullet-fast words and lyrics being clearly understood.
One last shout out must go to Lysander Abadia's choreography direction (assisted by Nikaela C. and dance captain, Rachelle Schaum). In small and large numbers, hips and hands, feet and legs, arms and bodies move with gusto, grit and gumption. The result makes it difficult not to stand up and join along.
With a cast of twenty-three who can sing and dance like nobody's business, City Lights has a summertime Kinky Boots hit that is a must see, with a message of love and acceptance that needs to be heard, now more than ever.
Kinky Boots runs through August 20, 2023, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose CA. Please note: At the Thursday, July 25, and the Saturday, August 5, performances, well-fitting masks will be required of all audience members. For tickets and information, please visit cltc.org.